Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Curse Garden (Full Story)

The healer’s shelves were filled with rows of jars, each stuffed and carefully labeled with the sort of magic they contained. They were mostly simple magics; peony blossoms to sooth the itching pox, cedar twigs to quicken the healing of shallow wounds, red earth clods to strengthen a weak stomach. Kit inspected every one, but there was no magic for sale that would cure her of the sickness nestled inside her.

“What ails you, dear?” The healer asked, appearing at her elbow. She was a handsome woman shortened by age. One dark swath of hair cut through a fall of silver and her eyes were sharp green.

Kit found that she couldn’t reply except to pull her arms more tightly around herself and shake her head. She knew how easily kindness and concern folded into fear. The name of her illness had that power, and she had no desire to have that experience again.

“Ahh.” The healer’s smile became secretive and knowing.“Don’t be ashamed. You certainly aren’t the first young woman to find herself in such a predicament. I have just the thing.”

As the old woman ducked through the heavy blue curtain at the back of the shop, Kit grasped her meaning with horror.

She followed without thinking.  “Lady Healer, you’ve misunderstood me!”

Behind the curtain was a much smaller room, though it was equally filled with labeled jars. These, though, were for more serious ailments: broken bones, boils, and watery lungs. On the walls were maps of the surrounding countryside all annotated with what rare herb or flower grew where and when they were likely to bloom. Drying leaves and berries hung in bundles from the rafters and a ladder reached up between them where Kit could make out a loft.

“Here we are,” the old woman said, producing a jar filled with spiny white leaves. “These’ll do the trick. Boil them for five minutes, then drink the water. Don’t eat the leaves. Bury them and in two days, you’ll be clear as spring air.”

“I’m sorry, but this won’t help me. My problem – well, it isn’t so ordinary,” Kit said, hoping she hadn’t revealed too much. When the healer drew back, clutching the jar with rigid fingers, Kit feared she’d soon be chased from the shop and probably the village, but then the woman nodded.

“I see,” she said, turning her eyes to the little table shoved into one corner and beginning to sort through the many scrolls stacked on top. “Magical afflictions are certainly tricky. You’ll need something much more powerful than anything I have here, and I know of only one place to send you.”

Something like hope stirred in Kit and she watched the woman anxiously. The healer sorted through her scrolls for a moment, finally selecting one and returning to Kit.

“There is a place, not too far from here, where a garden of roses grows on the side of a steep hill. Plucking any of those roses will cure you of whatever it is that afflicts you. It isn’t hard to get to, but the price is a steep one.”

Kit found it impossible to imagine any price would dissuade her of finding this garden and plucking one of its roses.

“I’ll pay whatever you ask for that map,” she said, giddy with relief. “I’ll give you everything I have.”

But the old woman didn’t return her smile. “No price. I will give it to you, but before you take it, you must know that every person who has taken a rose has been cursed.”

“Cursed?” Kit withdrew the hand that was already reaching for the map. “In what way?”

“It’s different for everyone. Some have been so trivial as a change of hair color or a nose that runs every other day. But others have forgotten the names of their children or have become unable to bear even the slightest touch without pain. I can’t say what it will be for you, but I can say this garden is equally full of curses as it is of cures. You cannot have one without the other.”

Anything, thought Kit, would be better than the thing lurking inside her. A runny nose was nothing by comparison. She took the map and thanked the old healer profusely.

Outside the shop, the day was bright and busy. Kit dodged a stream of children chasing a ribbon someone had spelled to race like a snake above their reaching hands, then found a quiet alley behind a row of hawker stalls selling spiced meats and fresh vegetables. When she was sure she’d gone far enough that no one would disturb her, she spread the map out on the hard-packed dirt to study.

It looked simple enough. The path was clearly traced in blue ink, breaking away from the village and the main road immediately to cut through wheat fields, then diving into the Keening Wood. Instead of continuing through, however, the path cut into the thick of the forest and climbed a little unnamed rise. That was where it ended, the garden marked only by a drawing of a small flower.

Kit pressed her finger against the flower and her heart fell just a little. It might take her several days to travel this distance and she only had less than three to spare. She could feel the illness inside her, coiled and trembling, waiting for the moment it would stretch through her entire body and change her forever. Her time was running out. But Kit wasn’t ready to give up. Not now that there was hope.

When she was sure she had the path firmly in her mind, she rolled the map again and  slipped it into the pouch holding her meager belongings. She would need food to make the journey. The sparse collection of coins in her pocket wouldn’t buy much. Maybe a week’s worth of meals if she was prudent.

She made quick work of gathering supplies; bread and dried beef, a few apples and a block of hard cheese, and a small knife in case the rose stems were tough. With each item carefully packed in her pouch, Kit dropped her very last coins in the open hands of a young priest seated in the hot sun, then set out to find the garden of curses.


It had been three days since Kit had found her way to the hidden garden. A place she’d found surprisingly unremarkable given the magic that lay inside. While the roses themselves were glorious, the garden was like any other she might see in town. Well-tended, but utterly plain with its orderly rows of multi-colored roses. Even the scent, while heavenly, as all roses are, smelled like that of any other rose garden.

She’d reached the small patch of flowers at the last possible moment to save herself. The evil thing inside her had begun to stretch and take hold. It was with great effort that she forced a hand, no longer completely her own, to take a rose.

Still, in that moment, she had the presence of mind to remember the healer’s warning. She scanned the small rows of roses for the smallest, least beautiful, least colorful bud, and plucked it. She hoped that whatever magic the garden and its caretaker held, would appreciate her restraint. Perhaps the curse that came with the tired-looking burgundy bud would be a minor one.

Kit felt a certain kinship for the flower that even now stuck out of her pack as fresh as the day she picked it. She too was always overlooked among her more beautiful, more colorful sisters. It was her longing to step out of their shadows that had wrought the ailment for which she’d sought a cure.

All her life, Kit had heard the warnings. One must never do magic for selfish gain. One must never do magic to cause harm. And one must never, ever, do magic on themselves. She had only wanted to know what it was like to be the center of attention. To feel Galen’s eyes on her the way her sisters did, but barely noticed.

When she found the book of spells while out on her daily walk, it felt almost as if the book had found her. She’d been compelled to take a faint dirt path she’d never noticed before. As she followed it, she felt a sense of growing excitement. She was meant to take this path. Meant to find whatever lay at the end of it. When she reached the hollow tree and found the book hidden inside, she’d thought it a gift. If only she’d known the evil it would release.

Kit pushed the memory away and focused on keeping her feet on the path. She would be out of the Keening Wood by midday if she kept up her pace. So far she’d felt no trace of the garden’s curse, only the lightness of having her wicked illness removed. Buoyed by three days of freedom, she was beginning to believe that she’d made the right choice. That it was the brightest, most beautiful roses that carried the highest price. Kit felt most certain that she could happily return to being the least noticeable of her sisters if it meant she was forever safe from evil.

When she reached the small brook that traversed the path out of the wood, she stopped to drink and admire her plain reflection in the water. The water rushed and swirled around the rocks, and the tall trees blocked most of the sunlight, making it too dim and choppy to see herself properly. Kit made a promise to herself that as soon as she reached town, she would find a looking-glass and appreciate the face she’d long wished would be different.

As she burst from the woods and into the outskirts of town, Kit brimmed with a joy she hadn’t felt in years. It was good to be alive and to be herself, faults and all. She cheerfully greeted the few strangers she met on the road with a smile and a, “Good day!” but none responded in kind. No matter, thought Kit, rudeness could not spoil this good day.

It was only once she reached the town center that Kit began to sense that all was not well. She’d asked a merchant the price of an apple, but he ignored her repeated requests. She attempted to inquire about working in exchange for a room at the inn, but the innkeeper stared through her as though she weren’t there. She wondered if word had gotten out about her troubles. Had the healer warned the town against her?

Kit bit her lip to keep it from trembling. So this town would be like the last then. Afraid of her evil, unwilling to help. She was surprised to find she felt more anger than hurt this time. She was cured. She was certain of it. She choked back a frustrated sob and left the inn. She was hungry and tired and had nowhere to go.

“Are you alright, lady?” Came a gentle voice below her.

Kit looked around until she saw the young man sitting against the corner of the inn. It was the priest she’d given her last coins to before entering the wood. Kit sighed with relief. At least someone in the town still had some decency.

“No sir, I’m not,” she said honestly. The graveness of her circumstances hit her all at once. She was tired, hungry, penniless, and still an outcast despite being cured.

He tilted his kind face toward her and Kit realized he was blind. “Ah,” he nodded, knowingly. As though he could see all of her troubles without the use of his eyes. “Perhaps I can help.”

“Oh, thank you.” Relief rushed through Kit.

“Follow me,” he said, as he rose carefully to his feet.

She followed as he lead her slowly down the alley to a small doorway. “Rachel,” he called into the little wooden building barely bigger than a shack. “I’ve got a young lady in need.”

Kit braced herself for the moment when the cheerful woman approaching got a good look at her face and realized who she was. She took a deep trembling breath. If these two wouldn’t help her, she didn’t know what she’d do.

The priest sensed her unease and sought to reassure her. “Do not worry, young lady. Rachel is a good-hearted woman.”

Rachel frowned as she reached them, running a brief eye over Kit before turning to the priest. “Father Malcolm? Who are you speaking to?”

A cold, hard realization settled into the pit of Kit’s stomach. A just penance, she thought. She had wished to be noticed, to be beautiful and lively, and now she was nothing. A thin voice that only the blind could hear.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to the priest as she stared at the confused expression on the woman’s face. “I have to go.” She turned and ran back toward the town square where she hoped to find the healer. The priest shouted after her, but this time she was glad to be unseen.


Kit stared in horror at the empty shop windows. Dust settled in the corners of the glass, spiders had made their homes beneath the door knob and the rusted sign dangled precariously from its hinges. The healer was gone, and the space she’d occupied just days before left no hint that she’d ever been there at all.

Kit twisted the knob, knocking the cobwebs free, and pushed open the door. Inside was just as abandoned and empty as the façade. No jars lined the cracked walls, and no smells drifted in the stale air. Kit made her way to the back of the shop, sweeping under the blue black curtain.

Sitting alone on the back wall sat a glass jar. Empty, it seemed, until Kit drew nearer. The jar was dusty, old, like everything else in the healer’s shop. Inside it laid a handful of dirt and a note on faded parchment. Kit twisted off the top and pulled out the paper.

Buried secrets in the garden lie
Like silent curses that were meant to hide
An evil growing deep within

The rest of the note had been eaten away by the dirt in the bottom of the jar. Frustration pricked her skin and made her face burn hot. Kit threw the jar and watched it shatter into pieces on the floor. She knew where she had to go, but with only half a cryptic note, Kit didn’t know what she’d find there.


Father Malcom thought Kit to be a lost soul, and it was close enough to the truth that she felt she ought not to correct him. He fed her, gave her a room for the night, and then packed her satchel with enough salt pork, bread, cheese, and apples to last nearly a week, before he sent her on her way. Two days swift travel, for now she knew the way, and Kit arrived at the garden.

Nothing seemed amiss; the same neat rows of flowers, and the same heavy scent of roses. Kit walked between the rows allowing her fingers to graze the petals of the largest blooms, careful not to prick her finger. She didn’t know exactly what she was looking for, but her feet shuffled along the path as if they knew the way.

Deeper into the garden she walked, until the rows of flowers gave way to open green bordered by stone gargoyles with menacing smiles. “Guardians.” Kit pinched her lip between her teeth. The word had slipped out without thought. She pulled her hands close to her sides and continued on past them, afraid to touch them for fear of what magic they held.

Kit neared the end of the garden, where a tall row of hedges carefully trimmed into the shapes of animals, like wolves and bears, made a barrier against the forest beyond. In the center of the hedge wall sat two gargoyle statues with a space big enough for a third in between them. This, Kit knew, was where she needed to go.

She knelt between the statues and pulled the rose bud from her satchel. She dug a small hole with the blade of her knife, and buried the rose.

Buried secrets in the garden lie

The air shifted and the scent of roses overpowered her, turning from heavenly sweet into something bitter and rotten.  The hedges began to move as if they might come alive and swallow her.

Inside her, Kit could feel it growing. The evil she’d tried to dispel was stirring, writhing like some great leviathan, coiling around her soul, ready to claim her.

One must never, ever do magic on themselves.

It started first in her toes, becoming solid, grounding her in the soil between the smiling gargoyles. It moved up her legs, forcing her into a crouch. Her skin hardened, grayed, like stone.

She’d wanted to be more, and in turn she was made less. This was righting the wrong that she had done. This was claiming her punishment for disobeying the laws of magic. This was her final penance. 


Photo by koalie via Flickr Creative Commons.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Kingdom Of Lies (Full Story)

Magda wasn’t sure how many days she’d been running. They had begun to meld into a continuous blur of light and dark, green and brown, somewhere in the second. She was tired all the way down to her bones, and she knew that Bastian, her horse, wouldn’t be able to go much further before collapse. Still, the urge, the desperate, clawing need, to go further wouldn’t abate.

No amount of distance felt safe. Not from the king’s men. His seers could see her anywhere she went in his lands. Unlike most villagers, she knew this to be fact rather than just rumor, because until she'd snuck into the stables and stole away on the old horse, she had been one of them. A novice seer, that is. A job she’d loved until she’d discovered the awful truth about the king. Until she’d made the fatal mistake of following her heart. And until the moment the king set his hounds on her with the order she be brought back, dead or alive.

Knowing what she did, Magda couldn’t decide which option was the better, and so she hoped she would face neither. Unfortunately, being able to see people on the king’s land, is not the same as being able to see the lay of it, and Magda had no idea how close she was to the border, or how to tell when she’d crossed to the other side. She was tempted to use her gift to search for a soul that might know it, but the risk of opening her mind to the sisters was too great. Opening up, even just a little, was enough to make her a shining beacon on the map. They’d be there in no time.

Even without the opening her mind, she stood out too much. She still wore the bright red robes of the consecration ceremony, where she looked into the golden bowl and saw the king’s true, monstrous, face upon the surface of the water. Whatever he was, he was not King Cadriel and as she stared with dawning horror, she saw that the sisters, and everyone in the court had fallen under his spell. She felt pinned to the spot, as though someone were holding her there and sending her this vision.

Amidst the flickering candles and the stone-faced sisters, Magda watched the thing-that-was-not-her-king’s plan spool out across the water in scene after horrific scene. He would turn the kingdom into a wasteland where other beasts like he could thrive, and then they would spread to other lands, until the whole of the world was swallowed, and those in it dead or worse, playthings. When the vision finally released her, she found that she had already planned her escape. Each step fixed inside her mind except this last – where to go.

Bastian trembled beneath her and his steps began to slow. Magda couldn’t remember the last time they’d had water. Only that it had been in the moonlight and now, the sun was slipping behind the hills that never seemed to get any closer. “There now,” she stroked Bastian’s neck, letting him know he could stop. “It’s alright.” They’d been running along the edge of the forest, where the land was flat, and she nudged him toward the trees. She doubted they could make it far enough to find water, but at least they would be sheltered, perhaps hidden from view.

This way, girl. The voice sounded inside her mind, Magda was sure of it, but Bastian’s ear pricked, and he turned in the direction from which it seemed to come. Only a few steps more. The voice was reassuring. It reminded Magda of her grandfather, not in the sound of it, but in the gentle tone. Magda was too tired to fight it, she felt her body go slack with relief. If this was a trick, she would meet her end. She couldn’t run anymore, nor could Bastian, who even now, stumbled as he slowly made his way over roots and fallen branches.

The scent of wood smoke lay heavy in the air, enveloping them. In the dim light of the fading dusk, Magda could just make out a cottage, and in its doorway, a man. No, she thought, as Bastian came to a stop with a soft whiny. Not a man, a boy. Not much older than she.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” he said, with a voice that was at once kind and calming, and decidedly not the voice she’d heard in her mind.

Magda let go of the reins, and slid off the fatigued horse. She managed one step toward the boy before exhaustion overtook her and she fainted into his waiting arms.

Over the weeks she’d been safeguarded, Magda had explored every square inch of what Mathias told her was protected by the shroud.  A small stretch of forest, bordered by the thickets trees Magda had ever seen. Trees that wouldn’t naturally have grown in the kingdom, without a little magic. It was the trees, Mathias explained, that protected them from the King’s seers.

A small band of runaway servants and seers alike, Mathias and his companions knew the truth about King Cadriel. And like Magda, they’d tried to escape. But there was no escape from the far-reaching clutches of the demon king. He’d spread his seed far and wide among neighboring kingdoms, already ensnaring the people of the land with his spell. The only safe place was to hide in plain sight.

The morning air was brisk, sunlight seeping through the canopy of trees, as Magda lead Bastian from the stables. Mathias had gone into a nearby village, two days travel at best, with a former servant man by the name of Sazh. Though she’d only known Mathias a few weeks, when the boy was gone, Magda felt restlessness in her heart. The cottage walls seemed to press in on her, and the constant bustling of the other women, especially an elder seer named Celeste, made Magda long for open air and green pasture. Though she knew she couldn’t leave the safety of the shroud, she climbed onto Bastian’s back and led him into the forest.

The woods were silent and the air around her seemed thick and heavy. The shroud, she thought, for as she neared the border the weight began to lessen and her breath came easier. She peered through the thickest of trees, spotting something glinting in the distance. Water, she knew by the way the light bounced and moved in soft waves.

This way, Magda. The voice she’d heard just weeks before, when she came upon the cottage, was back again in that same soft lulling tone. Underneath her red robes, her skin prickled and she felt Bastian tense beneath her. The voice was familiar in a way that things sometimes are, without really being. Like a name long forgotten.

“Come, Bastian.” She clucked her tongue and nudged the horse’s sides with her calves. “This way.” But the horse refused to move, stomping his hoof in protest. She tried again, and Bastian locked his legs and jerked his neck, tugging the reins from her hands. She huffed, and jumped from his back, allowing the stubborn stallion to graze alone as she crept closer to the pool.

Magda. Her name was a whisper through the trees. From somewhere on the other side of the shroud, in the direction of the pool, she heard it again, and again. She glanced back the way she’d come, knowing the cottage to be near, but too far for her voice to be heard by the women. Mathias had travelled into the village many times before, and he’d never been detected by the king’s seers. They wouldn’t notice her. They’d probably long forgotten that she’d run away.

She turned back toward the pool, watching the peaceful waves drifting along it’s sunlit surface, reminding her so much of the pool back home, where she’d first learned to see, when times were better. Was it really better, to be naïve and believe her king was fair and just, and not the monster she now knew him to be? She couldn’t know, and decided it best not to wonder.


Though she missed her home, her life had not been a terrible one. She’d found Mathias and the cottage after all. And she still had Bastian by her side. The horse lifted his head and snorted once at her, as if reminding her of his presence, before he went back to grazing on a patch of purple clover.

Still, she thought. It would be lovely to see her home again. If only for a moment. She slipped between the trees, tearing her red robe as she made her way beyond the boundary of the shroud, and to the pool just beyond.

Magda knelt at the water’s edge, leaning back on her heels, not yet ready to gaze into the water. She could just see Bastian’s ears pricked and pointed in her direction from where she’d left him inside the shroud. She should turn back. She felt it in her bones, the fervent need to run back inside the shroud. Back to safety, back where she was protected from King Cadriel’s seers. Back to Mathias.

Magda, we’ve missed you. The voice sounded more like her grandfather each time she heard it. It beckoned to her, like a watery finger from beneath the surface of the pool. Without looking down, Magda drew swirls, circles, and runes with a finger, lightly skimming the surface of the pool. Any pool, she knew, could be used to see. If you knew how to use the magic the water held onto so tightly.

“Show me my home,” she whispered, as she leaned forward and gazed at her reflection.

It was selfish, she knew, to risk so much for one glimpse ofhome. If the sisters turned their empty eyes this way, it wouldn’t only be her indanger, but Mathias and everyone else in these woods. But she would be quick,she assured herself. She could afford this one small comfort.

At first, the pool revealed nothing but her own face madepale by the darkness of the water.
Magda kept her breathing even and focused on the relaxingher thoughts until the only thing in her mind was a single, clear note.

It was different for all seers. For some, the note soundedloudly as though bellowed from a great height. For others, it was breathy andfaint, just a secret of a sound so difficult to discover it required the mostsolitary of rooms to develop. But for Magda the note was so simple to invoke ittook effort not to do so accidentally. In her mind, it sounded as clearly asany bell. Though she had never shared the note with another – it was consideredfolly to do so – she knew precisely what it would feel like humming through herchest and nose.

Once, her grandfather told her of a time when seers wouldjoin around a pool to combine their powers and see great distances. When thathappened, each of their unique notes had sounded together. “We are a choir,”he’d said. His eyes grew watery to remember it. He was not blessed with an overabundance of emotion and so when it surfaced, Magda took notice.

As she gazed over the pool, growing increasingly frustratedwith its placid surface, she wondered if Mathias and his seers might open theirminds to hers. Perhaps, if they could gather enough power, they might succeedin clearing the minds of King Caldriel’s seers and break his hold over thekingdom.

The water shimmered and the note in her mind became muted. Theimage that rose through the shallow pool was not that of her family home in thevalley of the Fold River, but that of her grandfather’s face.

Magda sat back on her heels, startled. It wasn’t unusual tosee something she hadn’t asked to see. Minds wander, after all, and sherecalled now that hers had done exactly that. But it was unusual to see someonewho had passed onto the next world. Grandfather Pim had left them long ago. Sheshouldn’t be able to see him, yet there he was, pushing a smile into his tiredface.

He didn’t speak. At least, not in the conventional sense.But in her mind, Magda again heard his voice answering questions she wasn’taware she’d asked. Quickly. For, they both knew there was no time to waste onreminiscing. The stone-faced sisters would be quick to find her now.

They had just enough time for Magda to understand one thingwith absolute clarity: she must kill the king.

* * *

She didn’t remember her walk back to the cabin in the woods.Bastian walked beside her, she knew, but it wasn’t until the smell of smoketeased her nose that she had any sense of where she was. The next hour – or wasit two? – passed with more raised voices than she’d ever heard at the cabin.

It wasn’t every day they discussed regicide.

It was Mathias who resisted the most, and he did so with suchfury that Magda nearly lost her nerve. But when he raised his hands and asked,“What power do we have that could possibly give us a fighting chance againstCaldriel’s army?” Magda saw the fear that caused his hands to tremble.

She didn’t back down. Instead, she raised her chin andlooked at each of the seers gathered around their rough-hewn kitchen table whenshe said, “We are what Caldriel fears. Why else would hepursue us so desperately? It is because he fears our power. All we need do isjoin our minds and free those of his seers. With their help, we’ll be able tochallenge his hold on this kingdom and the next.”

Mathias stilled with his eyes on Magda. “But what of thesisters? If we join our minds, we’ll be a hundred times brighter than any oneof us alone. The sisters are as sharp as Caldriel’s hounds. They would spot usand prevent us from reaching the others.”

From this, Magda knew he was no longer allowing fear todictate his thoughts. He was planning, which was nearly as good as if he’dproposed the idea himself.

She looked at the old and young faces at the table, atCeleste whose hands were pressed together at her unsmiling mouth. How could sheask them to risk the small, happy lives they’d managed to create here? Yet,they were here. Not a single person had left the room when she proposed theytake action.

“Yes, they would,” Magda said, confirming Mathias’ words.“That is why we must have someone in the palace. Someone who can join us frominside and overwhelm the sisters.”

This time it was the entire room that stilled.

Mathias broke the silence with a simple, but clear, “No.”

But Magda was tired of running. She was tired of hiding andwas not at all satisfied with a prison in any shape, even if it was one shefound agreeable. She could see in the press of his lips that Mathias knew this,too. He would let her go.

She stood and her red consecration robes swayed around herankles. Though she’d been offered other clothing, she’d never accepted. It wasas if part of her had always expected to return, though she never would haveguessed how and with what purpose.

“I’ll leave tomorrow,” she said, and though she was moreafraid than at any point during her flight, she discovered that fear was easierto carry when the path ahead was clear.

Photo found via weheartit.com. If this is yours, please let us know so we can credit you.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Red River (Full Story)

I roll my window down just so I can watch Gentry’s hair blow in the wind, from the passenger side of his old Chevy. He smiles, a dimple hidden beneath the honey colored stubble on his face, like he knows I’m watching him.

He reaches for the radio and bumps up the volume and we sing off pitch to Sweet Home Alabama, my bare feet tapping along to the beat on the dashboard. The smell of honeysuckle hangs in the air and it mixes with Gentry’s cologne and the exhaust from the pick-up and it all brings one word to my lips; summer.
I try not to notice the leaves have started to change. I don’t want to see the summer end. I’m not ready to say goodbye to this.

To say goodbye to Gentry.


Gentry grabs my hand to steady me. One foot after another, I balance on the railroad track, only leaning on him because I want to.  His fingers are long and warm and I try to memorize the shape of his hand and how mine fits into it.

“I’m gonna miss this smell,” he says. His eyes are hidden beneath the brim of his baseball cap. The shadow it casts makes his jaw line sharp and I have the urge to kiss him there.

But I just breathe in deep instead--Iron, rust, tar, and honeysuckle. I’d miss this smell too if I were the one leaving, but I’m not. I can’t imagine ever leaving Red River. It’s a thought I just can’t have. “You don’t have to go,” I mumble.

If Gentry hears me, he doesn’t show it. He kicks a rock with the toe of his boot and it skitters down the small incline and plops into the river beside us. “You wanna go for a swim?”

Neither of us has a bathing suit, but that’s never stopped us before. The river water is crystal clear and it’s real deep beneath the railroad bridge just a ways up the track. Gentry likes to jump from the bridge, but I’ve never tried. Today I think I will.

“Sure.” I smile at him like he’ll always be mine, and we’ll always have this. And if just for today, I try to believe it.


I didn’t know it was the last time I’d see Gentry. He cut our summer short when he left for California two weeks sooner than he’d promised. I told myself I wasn’t going to think about him after he left, but he’s in me. Like the hot iron of the railroad tracks, the feel of the cool river water on my skin, the sound of Sweet Home Alabama on the radio. There are some things you just can't let go of.

I head down to our spot on the river, wanting solitude, and wanting more than ever not to be alone. I stop short on the river bank, looking up at the boy on the railroad bridge above. My eyes play tricks because I think it’s Gentry, until he jumps and a mess of dark hair plunges into the water.

When he comes back up, he swims to me. I watch, as he climbs up the rocky slope, water dripping from his naked shoulders. “Hi,” he says. Goose bumps cover his chest and arms.

“It’s too cold for a swim.”

The boy laughs. “Yeah.  I guess so.” He rubs a hand through his brown hair and then he looks at me in a way that makes my cheeks warm. His eyes are deep, dark brown, set beneath a heavy brow. “I’m Jake.”

I smile, but it feels wrong. It’s too tight on my face. I haven’t smiled like this for anyone but Gentry. “You don’t look like a Jake.” His name should be something more exotic. It’s right on the tip of my tongue but I can’t grasp it. A name I’ve only heard in stories.

He laughs again and my breath catches. “You know, I’ve heard people look like their names, but I never really believed that.”

The wind blows cold and a leaf that’s just started to turn orange falls down and lands between us, floating on the water. Jake bends and picks it up. He hands it to me. “I bet your name is something pretty. Something like Summer.”



The leaf is cool and wet in my hand and I imagine what Jake’s skin feels like. Cool from the river, but warm against my fingertips. He points to a towel hanging from a dogwood branch. “Hand me that, please?”

I move aside so that he can reach it himself. I don’t like the way he makes me feel. Intoxicated, almost. It took me years to feel this way about Gentry. He leans in close to me, so close that I can smell his skin. My eyes close and I expect something like Gentry’s cologne, but that’s not right. The scent isn’t right.

I step back and watch him dry his hair. Something about this boy feels wrong. The way his eyes shine, the way his skin seems to move like it’s part of the river.

“Where’d you say you were from?” I ask.

Jake grins and just beneath his lip I can see his teeth—pointed, sharp. “I didn’t.”

I know him by his teeth. The sight sends warmth fluttering down to my fingertips and yanks me out of his intoxicating spell.

It’s clear from the twist in his smile that he thinks I’ll be easy. I’m happy enough to let him go on thinking it. Tucking my hair behind one ear, I drop my eyes and give a shy smile.

“I’ll trade you for your name,” he says, probing. But I know better.

Dropping to one knee, I grip the hilt of my knife, hidden safely in my boot. He doesn’t see me coming. He’s too focused on what my blood will taste like or how my screams will sound muffled by water. When I stand, thrusting the silver knife beneath his ribcage to the place his heart would be, his eyes are soft and bewildered. Only for a second. Then, his skin shimmers and all the water that was his body rushes down over my hand and back into the river.

I haven’t killed in weeks. Not since before Gentry left, and even then, Red River had been a quiet place.

Gentry thought our work was done. He thought we’d finally found the last of them and it was like knowing that the danger had passed drained the life right out of him. The river was just a river, the tracks were just tracks, and I guess I was just a girl.

On the ground, something gleams in the mud. I push my knife back into its sheath and lift the little pebble between my thumb and forefinger. It’s black with a hole through its center. Proof that their hearts are hard as stone. To be sure, I should set it on the tracks and wait for a train to come by and shatter it into a thousand pieces. That’s the drill. They aren’t dead until the black rock is broken.

My feet are soaked and I’m beginning to feel the chill of autumn resting on the tip of my nose. I stuff the stone into my pocket and head for home.

* * *

It’s been two months since Gentry left Red River. By the time he calls, I’ve stopped hoping for it. His number lights up on my phone and I’m all too eager to answer. But when I hear his voice, thinned out be the distance between us, I only say that I’m fine, and that Mr. Poll from the feed shop was found wandering main street without his pants again.

Though the stone hangs on a cord around my neck, I don’t say one word about the Protean I killed last week.

* * *

When the full chill of autumn moves in, hunting is more of a challenge. They’re harder to detect when the water becomes sluggish. It’s less likely that their skin will shimmer like the river, and more likely that they’ll hold their shape.

The scent of honeysuckle is long gone, replaced with the earthy smell of rotting leaves, but when I take a long, deep breath, I can still smell the tar from the tracks. It’s holding onto summer as hard as I am.

I visit our spot by the river every day. It was against our rules to hunt alone. But what choice did he leave me? One kill isn’t likely to bring him back, anyway. I need to convince him this town’s worth his time, that this town needs him.

They’re out there, I know it. Waiting to lure unsuspecting boys and girls down to the muddy banks and bleed them dry. There’s something about this place that attracts them. Something about the river bed they find irresistible; something about the tracks that delights them. Gentry may not have known it, but I do.

I find the second one a short distance down the tracks. He looks like a normal boy – slight build, dusty blond hair, ill-fitted clothing – but he leaves a trail of watery footprints behind him, so faint you’d miss it for the dirty gravel of the tracks. He might’ve made it all the way to town if I hadn’t caught up to him and pushed my knife into the soft spot beneath his ribs.

I almost lost his stone between the railroad ties. It was black as the tar that coated everything, but just as I was about to give up, my pinky fell into the hole and hooked it.

It makes a soft clattering sound when I thread it onto my cord with the first. Seeing both of them together looks more like proof than one on its own. Still not enough, but now I know what I’m going to do to convince Gentry this town’s more than just a small town in the middle of nowhere.

I’m going to kill myself a baker’s dozen Red River Proteans. I’m going to hunt them harder than ever before. And I’m going to do it all on my own.

It’s a strange thing, wearing someone’s heart around your neck. At first, I barely noticed they were there. Unless I was hunting, I didn’t think much about them. But now that I’m up to number four, I can feel their weight. Not a heaviness, but a pull. A deep longing for the cool waters of the river. 

I'd always thought of the Proteans as monstrous things hidden in pretty, human-looking packages. They didn't have feelings. They had hearts, but they were made of stone. Proof that they were cold and unfeeling. But this – this is an ache I know all too well. Their hearts call out for the water, but can't reach it. They have lost everything, their home, their bodies, and they are left to do nothing but endure it. It's how I feel about the summer, and Gentry, and it makes me sick to my stomach. 

I should crush them all, and end their suffering, but that won't help me get Gentry back. And like that old saying, "misery loves company". At least in a way I don't feel so alone. 


It’s early morning when I see my fifth victim. A girl this time. She stands with her feet still in the water, her ankles blending smoothly into the surface so that it’s hard to tell if there’s anything below them at all. She’s dressed for summer, despite the late October chill, and there’s no puff of white when she speaks.

“Please,” she says, her hands reaching out to me in a way that says both I’m begging and don’t hurt me. Her eyes are wet as they fall to the stones around my neck, but I can’t tell if it’s tears or just the way she is. She lets out a soft gasp as she stares at my trophies and for the first time I realize how garish they are. I must look like a monster to her. She quivers slightly, an unnatural movement, and I remind myself thatshe’s the monster. Not me.

“Please,” she says again, her voice watery and trembling. “You have my…” She searches for the word, “my soulmate. Please, just let him go, and I promise we’ll never come back here.”

Something pinches in my gut, but I shake my head no. California has my soulmate, and I need hers to get him back. My fingers grip the handle of my knife. “I can’t do that.”

She quivers again, but lifts her chin high as she steps out of the water. “Then take me too. I don’t want to be here without him.”

I try not to see the fear or the love in her eyes as I lift my knife. They are monsters, I tell myself, they don’t have emotions. If I don’t stab her now, she’ll grab me, pull me into to the icy water.

She makes no sound as I slide my blade into her chest. Just a splash, and a soft thud as her heart lands on the mud. I ignore the sting in my eyes as I string hers next to the rest.


I keep finding myself on the tracks over the river. Whether I'm headed to school, or the library, or the store, I seem to end up on the train tracks, staring down at the half frozen river. It's too cold now to catch Proteans. Snow lines the banks and the water is barely a trickle. My plan to get Gentry back is stalled until spring, and I only have five hearts to show for it. I can't even show him those, because he decided to stay out in California for Christmas. I gaze down through a gap in the tracks and let the stones' longing wash over me. 

Gentry's never coming back. That's what I imagine they whisper at night when I'm trying to fall asleep. That's what my gut says now. Let them go. Gentry too.

I know I'm probably just imagining their pain, but I feel guilty nonetheless. At least when the Proteans deal death it's quick. They don't leave their victims to suffer for months on end, halfway between living and dying. It's starting to feel cruel. And I'm starting to feel foolish. Like I've been holding onto something I never really had. 

I picture Gentry that last day in the sun and wonder if he ever felt the way I did. I can't see the kind of sadness in his eyes that I carried. Only the excitement he felt over something new. Maybe he never cared about Red River or me. Maybe he just liked the rush he got whenever he slid his knife into their soft bodies, and felt the cold water splash down his arm. 

It was Gentry that taught me about the Proteans, how they were evil, and I trusted him. But now that I know their pain, I can't help but wonder if he was wrong. I think maybe I should toss the stones back in the river, but I can't. 

Misery loves company.


The banks of the river are slick with ice. The air is brisk but calm and I barely notice the sting on my cheeks. I take a seat on the same rock I was on when I made my first kill, Jake. It's him that I feel the strongest. I finger his heartstone and remember the soft look of surprise in his eyes when I slid the knife into his chest. It was the last thing he expected, and I don't know why. His heart aches the most, a mirror of my own longing for Gentry and I find myself wanting to talk to him and find out.

Carefully, I pull the cord over my head and undo it. I slip Jake's heart off and hold it in my hand. If I throw it into the water, what will happen? Will he just swim away? Or will he come out of the water to demand I release his friends. Will he pull me in with him? It's that last question I find myself thinking about the most.

I never thought I could leave Red River, but without Gentry, it's unbearable here. I pray for summer to come and yet I know that when it does, and Gentry doesn't come back, I will feel even emptier than I do now. Red River is already just a shell of the town it once was to me, and I will be the hollow girl in it.

It’s time to let go. “I’m sorry,” I say, to Jake’s heart, to the river, to myself. I slip the other four hearts off the cord, and with a deep breath, I throw them into the water.

Photo found via weheartit.com. If it's yours, let us know so that we can credit you!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Stars Fall (Full Story)

"How many do you think there’ll be?" Missy asks me. She tilts her head way back so she can look up at me. It pulls her mouth open wide and she looks like a fish, gasping for air. Somehow she still manages to have that grin in her eyes, the one that got her her nickname. Her real name’s Cadence but we call her Missy, short for mischievous, because ever since she was born she’s been joyfully getting into trouble.

Whether she’s dropping something, just to see what happens, or finger-painting the walls, or digging holes in the yard she does it all with this look of pure delight in discovery. She’s six now, but from one minute to the next she could be two, or twenty-seven. Her personality is boundless. I’m already the smallest girl in the sophomore class, but sometimes she makes me feel even smaller. I just try to keep up.

"I don’t know," I say. "A lot. Too many to count. They’ll be moving too fast, anyway." The night air has bite and I force myself not to shiver. I refuse to regret not taking Mom’s leopard-print Snuggie. There are some things worth freezing for. My pride is one of them. Still, I eye Missy’s footie pajamas with longing.

There isn’t much I like about living outside of town, but I do like the way the sky feels like the whole world at night. It spreads out before us, the moonlight adding blue to the black. Any minute now the meteor shower will start. Our big, flat backyard, bordered only by the woods behind it is the perfect viewing spot. I would never admit it out loud but I’m almost as excited to see the shower as Missy. There’s something about the idea of all those shooting stars. So many wishes.

I hop onto the picnic table, and Missy climbs up next to me. She scoots as close to me as she can. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was afraid being out here in the dark, but nothing scares Missy. For her, everything is an adventure. I’m the one that secretly uses her cell phone as a night-light.

"What are you going to wish for?" I ask.

"Tabby," she thrusts a tiny finger at my face, scolding. "You’re not supposed to tell!"

"That’s only for birthday wishes. Meteor showers are special. They don’t count."

She frowns, thinking it over. "Oh, right," she nods slowly, totally trusting her big sister way too much. "I forgot."

Sometimes I just want to hug her. "So?"

"I’m gonna wish for a swing set, and a swimming pool, and a magic wand, and…" She takes a deep breath so she can shout the rest. "An adventure! The real kind. Not like when you just pretend."

"Wow," I say, but before I can finish the thought, Missy squeals and points to the sky.

"It’s starting!"

The sky comes alive with little streaks of light. Three or four at a time at first, and then a steady stream of yellow shoots from behind us, across the yard, and toward town. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. They light up the yard like fireworks.

I didn’t expect them to be so bright.

Missy runs out into the yard and spins, her head tilted back, pure glee on her face. "Look at all of them Tabby! Look!"

I do as she commands, and I’m surprised to see that in just the few seconds that I looked away, the meteors seem to have gotten bigger. Or closer. Or both.

They’re no longer tiny star-sized dots in the sky. They’re growing. I track one as it flies over my head. The angle looks wrong. Like it’s going down instead of across. The next one I track is even bigger. And the one after that is huge. I watch it disappear into the horizon and then there’s a slight flash of light, like heat lightning, in the distance.

My skin prickles. That’s not right. I may spend most of science class doodling in my notebook, but I’m sure that meteor showers go past the earth from like millions of miles away. They’re not supposed to get bigger or enter our atmosphere.

For the first time since the shower started I sit still and just listen. Faint pops sound from every direction. The meteors. Missy dances in the yard, practically in her own spotlight. My throat goes tight and I have to force myself to take a deep breath and look up.

The sky is filled with giant glowing orbs. They don’t seem to be falling at random anymore. They move quickly, on their own paths, some close, some miles away. Over the popping sounds now I can hear the thrumming beat of helicopters, and sirens in town. The flashes that once looked like heat lightning are getting bigger and brighter and a ground-rumbling thunder accompanies each one.

This is bad. This is so, so bad. "Missy," I shout, as calmly as I can manage. "It’s cold. Let’s go inside."

Missy doesn’t even bother to tear her eyes away from the sky. "No way! This is the coolest thing ever."

Before I can argue, the yard lights up bright as day. A burst of heat and light streaks right over our heads with a high, keening sound, heading toward the patch of trees behind our house. It – something – lands there with a boom that I feel more than hear.

Missy squeals with delight and runs toward the glow. "Missy! No!" I shout, but it’s too late. She’s already disappeared into the trees.

The trees whine and crackle with fire. Smoke creeps through the trunks so quickly that soon I can’t see much at all. Running simply isn’t possible, so I call again and again, “Missy!” but my cries are chopped to pieces, powerless against the blades of helicopters.

I inch forward with my hands stretched out in front of me. They sink into thick smoke until they are nothing more than faint hand-shaped outlines, a dark gray against gray. If Missy isn’t hurt, she’s at least as lost as I am. Soon, even my cries are choked out by the smoke. I have to lift my shirt over my nose and mouth just to breath. My eyes sting. I stop and realize I don’t even know which direction I’m going. For all I know, I’m moving in circles, bending around tree trunks this way and that way without anything to orient me.

I cough. Struggle to draw another breath. Fear settles over my shoulders, slips down my back like cold water. I don’t know how to get out.

Heat rises. Another fundamental I’ve gleamed from class, so I kneel with one hand braced against a tree trunk. The air isn’t so thick down here and I manage a few deeper breaths of stuffy air. The sounds of helicopters and fire attack from all sides. I’m going to be smothered by smoke and sound, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

A hand slides into mine. Small, hot, and familiar. Before I can say her name, I see her eyes and stop.

They shine like stars; points of shimmering white surrounded by black.

“Tabby!” She tugs at my hand. “Let’s go, Tabby. We have to go!”

Once more she tugs, and I’m on my feet and running. I don’t know how we don’t crash into the trees, but Missy steers us around them without effort, moving faster than we should be able to in this haze.

The smoke begins to thin. I blink, and we’re out of the trees, running across the flat expanse of our backyard and straight for the house.

She’s so fast. My legs are nearly as long as her entire body, but she’s two steps ahead the entire time. I don’t know if we’re being chased, if there’s anything behind us but noise and light, but it feels like we can’t afford to be slow. Even when we’ve made it back to the house and slammed the backdoor behind us, it feels like something is so, so wrong.

Missy lets go of my hand and runs through the dark hallway ahead of me. The only sound in the house is the TV in the living room and the ringing in my ears. Mom and dad are still in town. Date night means they’re probably inside a movie theatre, unable to hear the sirens and oblivious to whatever it is that’s happening here.

I don’t feel my legs anymore. I only know they work because I manage to get myself to the kitchen sink for a glass of water without falling over. After two full glasses, I’m still thirsty.

“I made a wish, Tabby,” Missy says from behind me, making me jump. “I touched a fallen star.”

She sounds different. Not in the way I’ve come to expect. She sounds calm and still. I remember how strange her eyes looked in the smoke, and how quickly she ran through the haze. Another chill rushes over me, tugging at my skin and hair with thousands of tiny fingers.

“What did you wish for?” I ask. Setting the glass on the counter and turning around.

From the living room, a local reporter has broken into the regular program. She’s trying not to shout as she says, “Authorities are asking everyone to stay indoors. Wherever you are, stay put and if you’re near the site of any one of these…these fires, do not approach them. Authorities are asking for anyone caught close to a blast site, where we’re learning there are possibilities of toxic substances, to contact the police.”

Missy stands in the middle of the kitchen, holding a something small in her hands. Her fingers are stained black with it, but she smiles.

“What is that?” She’s never made me so nervous. I’m afraid to look into her eyes.

She takes a step toward me. I hear the TV turn to snow in the other room. There’s no sound of helicopters anymore, just static and the hissing of the fire in the distance.

“Are you ready, Tabby?” she asks. “You have to say yes. Oh, please, say yes.”

This is my sister, I think. There’s nothing to be afraid of. I force myself to look into her eyes and I’m relieved to find they’re the same hazel they’ve always been. More green than brown and as mischievous as ever.

“Okay, I’m ready, Missy,” I add her name to prove that she’s her. To ground her in our house and her small body. “Now, tell me what it is.”

Lights sweep through the house from the backyard. I hear engines revving and voices shouting and my heart crashes into my chest like a star falling from the sky. Missy grasps my hand in hers, pressing something hard between our palms. It stings or burns, I can’t tell which, but someone is pounding at the back door.

Missy just smiles up at me; playfully, excitedly, calmly. She’s not worried about the men at the door and I wonder what she knows that I don’t.

But then she says, “It’s an adventure,” and I know I’m about to find out.

The pounding at the door grows in intensity until I’m sure they’re going to crash through it. It could be the neighborhood watch. It would be looters, driven mad by the chaos. It could be the army. It could be Mom and Dad. No, not Mom and Dad.

I look down at the warm object in my hands. It’s small and black, and almost looks like a rock, but not quite. It shines too much. Glimmers, like some type of metal that I don’t have a name for. “Missy, where did you get this?”

Missy stares at the metal rock and in her eyes I see that same strange glow. It scares me. “Missy?”

“We have to go now, Tabby.” She slips her tiny hand in mine and leads me to the front of the house. Bright beams of light flash this way and that. The voices of men shouting, sirens, fire, all of it mixes together until it’s nothing but white noise and the pounding of my heart in my ears.

I’ve seen enough movies to know that the government shouldn’t be trusted. What if aliens crash landed, and they want to eradicate all witnesses? But what choice do I have? I open the door, before they bust through it.

Men rush in with guns drawn. They swarm the living room, the kitchen, and I hear their boots stomping up the stairs. The flashlights on their helmets sting my eyes. I pull Missy close to me and hide the object in the pocket of my pajamas.

“Is there anyone else in the house?” a soldier asks me. My first instinct is to lie and say, yes my parents are home. But they’d know, and I don’t know what could happen to me for lying to them.

“We’re alone. Our parents are in town.”

“We?” he asks.

I nod. Missy’s fingers grope my pocket and I grab her hand too hard, but she doesn’t seem to notice. She grins up at me, like this is all some part of a game. Usually I’d wish I could be as fearless, but tonight I’m glad to be scared enough to be smart.

The soldier barks commands into a walkie-talkie and then tells us to come with him. I take one last look around our house. It doesn’t look like home with all these strangers here. Mom’s leopard-print snuggie lays draped over her rocking chair, and for no other reason than to feel close to her, I take it with me, and follow the soldier outside.

Our front yard looks like a war zone. Flashing lights are everywhere and it is so overwhelming that I’m disoriented and barely notice that Missy has walked away to speak to a man in a white coat. I pat my pocket. Empty.


The man takes her by the hand. Soldiers rush in and pin me back. All I can do is scream her name and pray she turns around. Why won’t they let me go to her? It’s like they don’t even see her. The man in the white coat turns to me and then slowly Missy does too. In their eyes I see the same glimmer.

“It’s an adventure, Tabby,” my sister says, as she points her finger to the sky. “I’m going, because you said I could, but these men will take care of you now.” Her voice changes and she’s gone from six to twenty-seven again. “Tell them nothing.”

And just like that, she’s gone.


"Geminid-Shooting-Stars" photo found here.

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